How countries weaponize landscape design in war

Yet there have been cases where nations have used the landscape as a weapon. In one such touchstone case — Operation Ranch Hand — the US military released a defoliant called Agent Orange over the South Vietnam countryside to weaponize the forest during the Vietnam War.

The US military released a defoliant called Agent Orange over the South Vietnam countryside to weaponize the forest during the Vietnam War as part of the Operation Ranch Hand project. [Photo: USAF/Wiki Commons]

While the end of the Vietnam War saw an international ban on using the environment as a weapon, landscape design—which includes the planning and planting of green spaces—continues to present itself as a tool capable of influencing the hearts and minds of local populations and ultimately achieving military objectives.

While speaking about the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said,

“Winning a battle is not winning the war. Taking a city does not mean Vladimir Putin’s taking the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people. On the contrary, he is destined to lose.”

Clearly, the United States military doctrine considers winning “hearts and minds“ as a necessary measure to win a war.

As a design critic who has been studying the role of landscapes in warfare, I argue that trees and green spaces can be components of a non-coercive mode of warfareas they can be used to further community solidarity and diminish the likelihood of insurgency.

Winning hearts and minds

The experience of the United States military in Afghanistan has proven that having a more powerful military force does not guarantee winning a war.

While the Taliban surrendered Kandahar only two months after the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom In 2001, the US military remained in Afghanistan and engaged in violent conflict for the next 20 years, ultimately withdrawing and returning the nation to Taliban control.

Central to the United States’ effort to secure peace was the strategy of winning “hearts and minds,” or making emotional and intellectual appeals to the local population through attraction and persuasion instead of force.

During Operation Allies Welcome US military service member plays with an evacuated Afghan girl in an Afghan refugee camp on November 4, 2021 in Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico. [Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images]

The US military may have ultimately failed to win the war in Afghanistan, but they did develop tactics to secure peace and win over the hearts and minds of local citizens. While not every effort was successful, I found several instances where the US military’s war-fighting objectives aligned with an unlikely ally — the profession of landscape architecture.

Since Olmsted’s time, a growing body of scientific research has concluded that exposure to green space contributes to improved health and well-being. While medical professionals have been prescribing spending time with naturelandscape architects have been working to maximize the positive outcomes of exposure through design.

Landscape design presents itself as a tool capable of influencing the health and well-being and, therefore, the hearts and minds of local populations. Ultimately it can achieve military objectives through the planning and planting of green space.

Weaponizing the landscape

Using the landscape as a weapon is an under-appreciated area of ​​study.

In 1976, the United States, along with 47 other nations, became signatories to the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques. This treaty prohibits “modification of the natural environment for use as a weapon of war” and “acts of war injurious to the natural environment.”

A burning oilfield during Operation Desert Storm, Kuwait. [Photo: Jonas Jordan/United States Army Corps of Engineers/Wiki Commons]

While deliberate environmental destruction continues, exemplified by the burning of oil wells set ablaze by Iraqi troops during the Gulf Warresearchers hope that the International Criminal Court may one day prosecute “crimes against the environment.”

More recently, the Stop Ecocide Foundation has been working to provide a criminal definition of ecocide that will carry the force of international law, making punishable “severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment.”

These efforts are laudable and deserve our support. Yet, the understandable emphasis on damage and destruction decreases the attention given to acts of war, like tree planting efforts, that “improve” an environment.

Understanding the long-term impacts of war

One project undertaken by the US military in Afghanistan saw active troops lead a reforestation effort in the Panjshir region, where they planted 35,000 trees, creating a regional green space.

A US Army officer plants a sapling during the ‘Afghanistan’s Future Takes Root’ initiative in Panjshir, Afghanistan. [Photo: 1st Lt. Holly Hess/DVIDS]

As many individuals experienced this regional planting effort, the landscape influences the hearts and minds of local citizens on a population scale.

Despite the US military now having withdrawn from Afghanistan, these planted trees and other green spaces continue to grow and exert influence. Thus, it is not just acts of war injurious to the environment that have wide-reaching and long-term impacts on a population.

As I write from my office on the unceded territory of the Musqueam people, I am more keenly aware that a beautiful landscape can manipulate hearts and minds and become a weapon of war. The continued presence of a colonial landscape, designed and imposed on these lands, is easier to recognize if we ask what this land looked like before and after establishing a settler-colonial society.

We experience green spaces differently depending on their design and our cultural background. We need to think about who designed and built our local green spaces and for what purpose. Ultimately, it matters if the landscape is redesigned and replanted by local populations or by occupying forces.

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